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Celebrity deaths put spotlight on safety

Christina Proctor

Celebrity, like nothing else, can spotlight an issue.

Michael Kennedy’s accidental death on the ski slopes in Vail, Colo., on New Year’s Eve followed less than a week later by U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono’s fatal skiing accident at Heavenly Ski Resort has brought the safety of skiing into question.

Statistics show the concern may be misplaced. According to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), during the past 13 years an average of 32 people have died skiing per year. The rate of fatality, about .69, is less than one per million skier and snowboarder visits. More people die from lighting strikes. The National Severe Storms Laboratory reports an average of 89 people have died in the United States each year from that weather phenomena.

Ski resorts have never attempted to claim that the sport is without risk, but when compared with other popular outdoor sports the fatalities are low. According to the National Safety Council, In 1995 there were 7.1 deaths per million bicycling participants. The ski industry also touts the statistic that the overall rate of skiing injuries has declined by 50 percent during the past 25 years.

The NSAA states that most fatalities and injuries occur in the population known for high-risk behavior. Victims are 85 percent male, usually in their late teens to late 20s. They are usually better-than-average skiers who are skiing at high rates of speed on the margins of intermediate trails.

Bono’s accident occurred in the treeline on the margin of an upper-level intermediate run. His death was the first at Heavenly this season. Last season there was one, and the year before there were two deaths. Sierra-at-Tahoe reports that since 1993 they have had only one skier death. In 1994, a skier who went off trail died.

A study by The Congress of Neurological Surgeons found the most common cause of head injuries on the slopes is contact with a fixed object, and trees were by far the most common object skiers hit. The majority of the injuries occur in the afternoon when fatigue could be a factor.


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